By Dan Spalding
WARSAW – Marsha Cook returned to teaching and her outdoor classroom on Friday night seemed to relish the opportunity.
Cook was one of several speakers featured at the second annual Juneteenth celebration held in Warsaw Friday, June 19, that attracted more than 100 people outside of the Kosciusko County Courthouse.
Juneteenth celebrates the freedom of slaves in Texas more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation had been announced by President Abraham Lincoln.
Cook, a retired teacher who accumulated more than 40 years in the role, told of the struggles of growing up Black and the eventual successes involving her family and career.
Cook was one of numerous speakers that were part of Juneteenth in Warsaw that also included music, prayers and a concluding candlelight vigil.
Cook opened her talk with Maya Angelou’s classic poem, “Still I Rise,” which seemed appropriate for her own story.
She talked about the struggles of living in a segregated community and exemplified the different experiences between Blacks and whites while she recalled living alongside neighbors who were white.
“I played games with some of the children in those families, but we could not attend the same school together because they were segregated. They passed my school to attend their school. They rode the bus. I walked. My school books were six years old because they’d been used in the white schools. But we learned to use brown paper bags to cover them and decorate the bags,” Cook said.
“The restaurants? Black people could only go inside if you were a cook or you were a custodian. To purchase food, I had to go to the back door. I ate a lot of homecooked meals. I didn’t go to the back door,” she said.
It took a few interviews before she was eventually hired to teach reading at some of the schools in Warsaw.
Without mentioning the superintendents by name, she told of a new superintendent who hired her to work as a teacher at Leesburg Elementary “without reservations.”
“Leesburg was like family to me,” she said. “I had an incredible career with Warsaw community schools and Leesburg Elementary school for over four decades. Even after being offered an opportunity to move to another school, I stayed with Leesburg. It was more like my hometown. One stoplight. Remember?”
Cook credited her faith family for helping her succeed.
She appeared to be a crowd favorite for the night with many family and former students in attendance.
Warsaw Community Schools Superintendent Dr. David Hoffert followed Cook’s address with his own and praised the longtime teacher.
“Every community has Civil Rights pioneers. You are one in our schools. You are one in our community – I thank you,” Hoffert said.
To see much of the Juneteenth prayer vigil, go to a recording made available on Facebook.
The event ended with candlelight vigil and music.
Sara Strahan Lenfesty, who organized Friday’s event with sponsorship From One Warsaw, asked the crowd to consider the past and work for a better tomorrow to end racial injustice.